by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Photo credit: Julietta Cervantes
Painted Bride Arts Center
Avid fans as well as apparently the entire Philadelphia dance community filled the rafters at the Painted Bride for three performances of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company‘s program “Body Against Body” this month. The directness of the title was certainly present on many literal, figurative and visceral levels. The three pieces essayed a mini-retrospective circa 70s and 80s when Jones and Zane, lovers onstage and off, were changing the landscape as gay dance auteurs for a generation in a perilous time. This was such a joyous program, with only a few instances of datedness, a testament to the stage power of Jones/Zane and reminder of the solid origins of Jones’ meteoric career.
At the February 23 performance I attended, the first piece Duet X 2 was trimmed because LaMichael Leonard, Jr. sustained an injury opening night, so was cast with two not three dancers. Antonio Brown and Talli Jackson bang through saloon -style doors, and start to move around each other eventually becoming playfully pugilistic. In the edited version, the dancers interpreted it more tenderly. Either way their dance chemistry, whether they are expressing affection or aggression is a movement study of male psyche and physicality. Jones tosses in some soft shoe phrasing that may or may not be racially editorial. Other moves in Duet, from 1982, pre-B-boy era phrases, for instance, that gained popular dance currency by now, could look static, but these dancers made it all hypnotically stylized.
Continuous Replay (1977, revised in 1991) is an ensemble for full company (and luckily, the previously injured Leonard was back in). The jarring opening tableau of a speedy version of Le Scare du Printemps has Jenna Riegel cast as ‘the clock.‘ Riegel’s red Mohawk and naked body just stunning as she is spastically moving her torso and arms to the brutal percussion of the score. She vanishes only to return, positioned in profile, leading a series of repeated birdlike moves, she hurls forward into a deep (fencer) lunges and reels back folding her arms and making a mocking caw sound to the audience. This series of movements is repeated, in violent variation, by the rest of the dancers in staggered formations advancing around the perimeter of the stage, naked as jaybirds. It is a moving frieze of bodies beautiful, which starts to get very agitated. Were they birds? Who knows, who cares?
Suddenly dancers reappear with articles of clothing (as in Jones‘ premiere of the Rite of Spring this year, it is, appropriately dancer optional nudity ala Hair. some half pulled on- boy with top no bottoms, thong singlet, look innocent and crazy. There are mod shimmy downs and blank stares, some of the men carry the women off like mannequins. There are episodes of movement amok to snippets of Beethoven and Bach; suddenly, Marvin Gaye is singing the 60s hit “What’s going on?” There is a mis en scene with I-Ling Liu executing diamond hard penche arabesques, adagio, side-back and front.
Meanwhile, Riegel is still advancing around the stage naked and the flock joins her for a more violently metronomic, some dancers reverse, some shout. Riegel gets the last naked grunt. This piece is so cryptically startling, grabbing everybody by the throat, as it did me. If nothing else was clearly dissembled, the fortitude of Riegel doing these repeated phrases with slight variations simply mesmerized.
Then the poetic, intimate ’Blauvelt Mountain’ (A Fiction), made in 1980 (revised in 2002) was also full of mystery, with many evocation in play. Talli Jackson and Erik Montes Chavero could be lovers, or tentative dancers working out trust issues or kids creating body games just to erase them and start again.
A beautiful sequence of on two blocks have Jackson looking like he is shifting gears in a rocket as Chavero floats around. They have repeated slo-motion body crashes, which are full of sarcastic whimsy. Jones will freeze frame many of their movement games that frame pedestrian phrases where they whisper to each other, or touch each other tenderly, or pantomime a conversation. Chavero leaps and Jackson catches his foot and they freeze, at other points the much more compact Chavero carries Jackson on his shoulder. Macho chest bumping is slowed down to show what an intimacy it is. There are lifts, inversions and interlocked tumbling. Then all of the accumulated movement hits fast- forward and these dancers hit all these marks repeatedly, eventually moving at breakneck speed. Chavero flings himself into an unassisted headstand. The mach speed precision astounds. Jackson vaults onto Chavero’s shoulder and they seem to tip perilously at the moment the stage goes black. The lights came up to a lusty standing ovation and Jones bounding out of the audience to embrace these dancers.
Fatherly kissed their foreheads and seemed both very pleased as a choreographer and personally touched at the caliber of this performance. A reminder what an innovator Jones is and that his choreographic oneness with the dancers has never left him even as he makes bigger, more elaborate pieces. The commitment of these dancers to this work is just as much about esprit de corps as it is about Jones’ singular aesthetic.